As tends to happen with hobbies (and, indeed, obsessions), Sumanta Chandra’s love for photography began early, when he was gifted a Leica IIIF camera by a senior at school. “It was a rudimentary camera, but there was something very appealing about the quality of engineering and construction. I started using it to shoot at random, just for the sake of using it. Fortunately, I had access to the school’s darkroom and, most importantly, very generous and talented mentors. There was no looking back.”
An engineer by education, Chandra has worked for over 20 years in the research and development domain at various companies, including Siemens, Sony, SCM Micro and Prime Focus Technologies – and his fascination with all things photographic has remained a constant throughout his life. “As much as I liked the Leica IIIF initially, the desire to own and use an SLR was overwhelming. The two photographers I looked up to were using the Nikon F and Olympus OM system respectively. After multiple years of saving my pocket money, I could finally afford a beaten-up Olympus OM1n, with a standard Zuiko lens. Then, after many more years, after I got my degree and my first paycheque, I bought a new Nikon F3 in 1994. Having owned the primitive Leica, the beaten up Olympus and the new Nikon F3 HP, I didn’t find myself liking one over the other. Each had its own strengths and weaknesses. In other words, all three cameras had found their place, making none of them redundant,” he explains.
As he worked his way up the ladder at his various places of work, he began collecting cameras in earnest. “I was overwhelmed by the desire to own and experience many of the legendary camera models. In 1997, I began by contacting dealers in Bengaluru and Mumbai. I was lucky to find a few pieces in close to mint condition, which I could afford. I ended up going to most of the camera collection fairs, antique shops and small auction houses all over the world. The collection kept increasing, and my desire to buy more kept pace with it,” he says. Some of the models in his collection are rare and almost at the levels of works of art, and the natural question that follows is if his passion is an expensive one to indulge (spoiler alert: it is). “Collecting these cameras is a very expensive passion, not just in terms of the cost of acquiring them, but of maintaining them. On many occasions, the cost of proper restoration is more than the value of the camera.” This fact hasn’t ever held him back, however – the near-obsession is one he has a ready explanation for. “A passion plays on the mind regardless of the basic rational of fiscal sanity. As with most objects of desire, there is a price fluctuation, sometimes cyclic, sometimes linear. Hence, the mind develops a justification about this irrational spending obsession.
I kept justifying to myself that there is a utilitarian value, a snob value and an investment value, as most of the items in my collection have gone up in value.”
He also says that the one about “They don’t make them like they used to any more” holds true, more and more. “Economists have been firmly at the helm of camera companies from the 1970s, and thus fixed life engineering has been the driving force in new product development.”
Chandra collects only mechanical cameras, with no electronic elements, because he is primarily in love with the heft and feel of them. Most of his cameras are in perfect working order, he says, and he ‘exercises’ them with dry runs at least once a month, also using them whenever he gets the opportunity. “Once the restoration of a camera has been done, periodically exercising them is all that is needed. It is a very basic exercise of running through all the shutter speeds the camera offers. My usage level is at least several times a month,” he says.
Photos shot by Chandra with his analogue cameras
Any collector normally finds it hard to pick favourites from their collection, but Chandra is quick to respond. “I love the Leica M3, the Rolleiflex 3.5F and the Linhof Super Technika IV. I am addicted to extremely well engineered, very basic, mechanical cameras. It is not about ‘what the camera can do for you’, but how well the equipment becomes an extension of yourself, and a part of the photographic stream of consciousness. For me, it was always about slowing down, so that I can shoot what I am experiencing, as opposed to what I am seeing. All three cameras work brilliantly for me, in this regard.”
You would think that a collection of this magnitude is not easy to maintain, and requires regular repair and servicing, and you would be right. Chandra has that aspect covered – he does it all himself. “At one point, when I was posted in Europe, and had sufficient free time, I used to shoot almost on a daily basis. I had seven Leica bodies and two Rolleiflexes in regular use. Many times, the cameras were in a ‘like new’ cosmetic condition, but the technical functioning required a CLA (Cleaning, Lubrication and Adjustment). In Germany, France, Holland and the UK, the places of my postings, camera overhauling and repairs were very expensive.
Since most of these cameras were made when the guiding philosophy was ‘clean and adjust’ as opposed to remove and replace, I ended up buying the proper tools, do it yourself books and some junk cameras to practice on. All of this was cheaper than the cost of servicing a single camera. Then came the burning of countless amounts of midnight oil. I learnt to service them primarily out of necessity, but then there was always the curiosity of looking into the guts of these wonderful machines.”
He doesn’t stop at collecting and maintenance, however. As a diehard fan of old-school photography, he’s built himself a developing laboratory at home. “I have always been interested in black and white photography. I did flirt with colour, but that was a very transient phase. The analogue black and white darkroom process is rather simple. The operating temperature and chemicals are relatively safe, and since I was already proficient in developing and printing, I ended up setting up my own darkroom. I have three Leica enlargers, and Jobo and Paterson film development tanks. The whole thing takes around forty square foot of space,” he explains.
Chandra does occasionally part with some of the cameras in his collection. “There are two major driving forces that compel me to sell. The first is the limitation of physical storage space and money. The second is that once a better example is acquired, the lesser example has to leave. Otherwise, one becomes a hoarder, as opposed to a collector,” he says. Ask him if he has any words of advice for budding camera collectors and he says “Always buy smart. Get the best possible cosmetic and technical condition, do your research regarding price and its fluctuations, take expert advice, and evaluate all the options at hand. It’s very important to keep in mind that this is just a hobby, even though there will be some opportunities of handsome returns. These opportunities are random, so if proper fiscal discipline is not maintained, it is very easy to go off the cliff, straight into ‘cuckoo land’ territory.”